We leave Skopje at 20:10 on the route of what would have been the path of the Athens to Belgrade train, if the Greeks were still doing international train travel. Geographically it seems that Macedonia should logically continue right up the valley north of Skopje to the watershed back into the Danube, but that’s not going to be an argument I’ll be pursuing during the trip. 2 stops and ¾ hour after setting off, barely 20 miles into the journey (it’s obviously a very sleepy sleeper train), just as night falls, we stop for half an hour at Tabanovci. We then travel 12 minutes over the border into Serbia to Presevo and hang about for another half an hour. Passport formalities out of the way, at 10 pm we are finally allowed to get to bed. The train pulls into Belgrade at a 5:43 am, though we’ll be hoping it’s a little later than that, I am told it can be up to 2 hours late, which will actually be quite convenient.
At 10:28 we catch our train to Strizivojna-Vrpolje, which is actually a sleeper to Austria. We head west along the Sava river into Croatia for 4 hours. We then change onto a train coming from Budapest to Sarajevo. We now travel south up the Bosna river valley into Bosnia, from which the county takes it’s name. We hit Sarajevo, just below the source of the Bosna, at about quarter past 9 in the evening. It will have just gone dark.
In the morning at 7 am, we catch the train south to the Adriatic and the small resort town of Ploče. The train begins travelling south west, over the Dinari Alps as it twists and tunnels it’s way over into the Nerevta river valley, reputed to carry the coldest river water in the world.
Following the river south, the line travels through Mostar. Alas no, we don’t get to see the famous bridge, though we do cross the Nerevta just before stopping at the station. We then disappear into a tunnel under the ancient town. After 3 hours of this divine railway we cross the border into Croatia, and immediately stops at Metkovic for a passport check. By 11 am we are on the coast at Ploče on the north bank of the Nerevta delta.
We will then catch a bus to Split, hopefully a privately hired one to run along the coastal road rather than the A1 inland dual carriageway. But either way we will have plenty of time to soak up the Adriatic sunshine in the Dalmatian capital. At 21:18 as the sun begins to set we will pull out of the station in a general northerly direction to Zagreb, arriving at half past 6 the following morning.
At 09:00 we are on the move again travelling in a roughly westerly direction to Ljubljana back along the Sava river we left 2 days earlier. We get an hour and a half in the Slovenian capital before climbing aboard again and continue our navigation of the Sava to Jesenice near the Austrian border, and almost to the river’s source at Zelenci.
From here we will catch another of the spectacular spin offs we have accumulated as a result of the 3 days we regained as a result of not being able to get to Istanbul, the Bohinj or Transalpina line in the beautiful Julian Alps. Built as one of the last acts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was completed in 1906 as a direct route from Bavaria to Trieste. Including the main tunnel, there are (approximately) 25 tunnels and 31 bridges in the 89 km between Jesenice And Nova Gorica. The journey takes just over 2 hours, and when you aren’t underground obviously, the scenery is generally fantastic.
The line takes us past Lake Bled, and then up the Bohinka river valley before we dive into the 4 mile tunnel under Mount Kobla. It emerges into the Bača and then the Soča valleys running to the Adriatic, and we have thus left the Danube river basin (though not for the very last time, we will return for one more spectacular visit in Switzerland the day after tomorrow). We cross the impressive Solkan bridge over the Soča, the largest stone arched railway bridge in the world, just before entering Nova Gorica on the Italian border at 16:45. Alas, as there are no through services running across the Slovenian/Italian border, we have to get off and walk across town, and the border, to the Italian station of Gorizia Centrale.
From here we catch a 17:40 train down to Venice, arriving at 19:56, conveniently an hour before sundown, and our 36 hours in Italy begins.